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Public to get rare look at Canadian treasures housed by Library and Archives Canada

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Members of the public will get a rare look at precious Canadian artifacts when Library and Archives Canada (LAC) hosts an open house this weekend.

The government agency is opening two of its largest facilities where tens of millions of Canadian historical treasures are housed. The open house will included guided access to LAC's Gatineau Preservation Campus, which includes a brand new, state-of-the-art storage facility that only opened in November 2022.

"So to start with, this is the world's largest automated storage facility for archival records, which is very impressive for the Government of Canada," said Nathalie Éthier who lead and oversaw the construction of the new facility. "The second thing is that it's net zero carbon."

Library and Archives Canada has the fifth largest collection in the world for heritage organizations. The collection, curated over 150 years, contains over 20 million books, more than 250 linear kilometres of government and private textual records, over 3 million architectural drawings, more than 425,000 works of art, more than 550,00 hours of audio and video recordings and the largest Canadian sheet music collection in the world.

"They tell all the stories," said the Librarian and Archivist of Canada at Library and Archives Canada Leslie Weir about the collection. "I think we all know there isn't one history of Canada, there are many histories of Canada, and at Library and Archives Canada we really want to reflect everyone's stories."

Library and Archives Canada has the fifth largest collection in the world for heritage organizations. (Annie Bergeron-Oliver)

Weir says some of the memorable items in the collection include a globe from 1695, the first map with Canada written on it, the two original constitutions, a paper dress from the 1968 campaign for Pierre Elliot Trudeau and includes an "incredible" collection on things like Expo 67 and on Olympic sports.

"There's such a wide range of collections here," Weir said. "We're really thrilled to be able to welcome people each year to be able to come and engage and see the collections."

Much of that collection is stored inside a new two-storey Preservation Storage Facility that has a storage capacity of more than 21,000 cubic metres, the equivalent of eight and a half Olympic-sized swimming pools. It's also fully automated so artifacts can be easily accessed by robots that move around the vaults.

"In the existing preservation centre, it's not automated. We have 48 vaults and our staff go into the vault all the time to go and retrieve collections," Éthier said. "The reason why we wanted to automate is that it allows us to retrieve material without having to go to the vault. It's a better use of our staff."

Those robots, which are controlled by humans one level below, operate inside six fire proof, and temperature and humidity-controlled vaults that are designed so anything inside can survive for up to 500 years. Each of those vaults is equipped with 1,804 mobile shelving units.

“What it means is that you could put a brand new piece of paper in one of the vaults, and in 500 years when you retrieve it, it would still be readable, which is amazing," Éthier said.

As part of the open house, members of the public will be allowed to tour laboratories and vaults, meet and talk to LAC specialists to about their preservation work and see some of the national treasures in the collection.

The Library and Archives Canada Preservation Campus will be open to the public on Friday May 24 and Saturday May 25 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Admission is free and no registration is required. 

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